Wednesday, December 5, 2007

It Takes (Out) a Village: Illegitimate American Power.

Hillary Clinton just pointed out that whoever holds the US presidency can, on both national and foreign matters, engage in "split-second decision-making that can affect the lives of millions of people" (AFP, New Straits Times [Malaysia], December 5, 2007).

Clinton made her remark as a criticism, but of her campaign opponent, not the system.

She was saying that her competitor, Barack Obama, was unqualified to have that power, not that there was any problem with the fact that such Zeus-like power exists in the first place.

One American deciding. Millions of lives. Fates determined almost in passing.

If you pull back and think about it -- slowly -- doesn't it all seem a bit improper?

For most political Americans the answer would probably be that they haven't yet thought about it, because in US politics, the existence of such power is taken as a no-need-to-think-of given.

But at the other end of the stick -- or the other end of the rifle, where the bullets come out -- there is a bit more consciousness of this remarkable fact about today's wildly unbalanced world.

Its why the US presidential campaign gets heavily covered in the popular press of, say, Malaysia, while on the other, US, end -- the trigger end -- editors are only dimly aware that that country exists.

It is also why, say, junior US Congressional or Executive Branch aides -- or, for that matter, US journalists -- can get treated like pashas when they visit weaker countries overseas.

If people figure out that you or your perceived (or real) team have the power to kill them or feed them, they tend to -- as one would rationally expect -- act toward you accordingly.

For years, those actions have tended toward deference -- though lately there's sometimes been more anger -- but both the deference and the anger flow from the same realization: that when you talk to extremely powerful people, you are talking to he (or she) who can shape your fate.

Of course, concentrated power is not a modern or a US invention, and it will always exist to some degree. But, as with many things, it is a question of, first,: to exactly what degree? And second, power to do what? To take my life, if you feel like it?

In today's world, power is so skewed -- in its distribution, its nature, and in its very scale -- that people like, say, American presidents can take out villages and barely know or remember it.

I once interviewed former President Ford on the phone and asked him if it was true that in a meeting with the dictator Suharto he had authorized the East Timor invasion.

Although I had told Ford's staff in advance that I was going to ask him about that meeting, he replied -- I think, honestly -- that he just could not remember.

He said the meeting had had a long agenda -- a fact confirmed by the later-declassified transcript -- and Timor was somewhere down the list, so he apologetically said that he couldn't be sure.

In fact, Ford did give the thumbs-up and, thereby, launched -- within a day -- what would become the greatest proportional slaughter since the Nazis.

If you're the ruler of any other country (including China, Russia, England, or France, the arguable candidates for distant -- very distant -- #2 world killing power), you don't have to stick Post-It notes on your computer to remember what countries you've caused to be invaded, or have provided with "lethal aid" (the actual Washington term for US assistance to the killing capacities of friendly forces).

How could such power possibly be legitimate? It can't be, by definition.

Even though you may have won a vote, and the voters are sovereign, the voters do not have the right to authorize you to facilitate murder.

People should not be running for president, they should be running to abolish the American presidency -- and state -- as they are now constituted, that is, as institutions that assume killing rights that no one has the right to give them.

Back in the summer of 2000, before he flew off to his death in Indonesia, I had several conversations with Jafar Siddiq Hamzah about his survival chances.

He was an Acehnese human rights lawyer, the emerging international voice of his people. He was waging a political struggle against the terror of the US-sponsored Indonesian army and police (a Clinton official had told the New York Times that Suharto was "our kind of guy"), and he had left the country after interrogation, surveillance, repeated threats, the torching of his office, and the disappearance or assassination of many of his friends.

But now he had a plan to go back -- for just a couple of months, he said -- and it turned in part on the fact that he had become, arguably, a kind of quasi-American. He had driven a New York City cab, was working on a Masters (The New School, political science), had achieved US permanent residency, and had even met with State Department officials and testified in the US Congress.

That had to count for something, he thought. But it didn't quite suffice.

When they found his body, it was unrecognizable . His jaw was gaping, as in a death scream, and the doctor said that they had apparently sliced off his face, perhaps with razor blades, or knives.

Maybe Jafar's mistake was that he did not become American enough.

Maybe he should have gotten citizenship, moved to Iowa, participated in the caucuses, and then cast that mystically-imbued American vote that grants life-and-death decision over millions, but have figured out how to cast it in such a way that it would have allowed him to return home without ending up outside Naga Lingga, North Sumatra, at the bottom of the village ravine.

I don't know how he could have actually cast such a vote. There was no serious anti-murder candidate.

But, who knows, perhaps he could have figured something out. Jafar was a creative fellow.